Yankees and Rebels both camped on Wrightsville farm

Detail from a 1931 aerial photo (Hagley Library Digital Collection, Wilmington, DE)

The last of June 1863 were momentous times for the citizens of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. Situated on the western bank of the Susquehanna River, the town was the western terminus of what was then the world’s longest covered bridge. The Northern Central Railway’s spur from York ran into Wrightsville and across the bridge to Columbia in Lancaster County. A busy turnpike ran through town, connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a host of small towns in between. The remnants of the defunct Tide Water and Susquehanna Canal ran south from the town toward Havre de Grace, Maryland. Lumberyards and ironworks lined the riverbank.

Wrightsville was a bustling, prosperous town of a little more than 1,000 residents in 1863. The routine had been broken by news of a possible Confederate raid into Pennsylvania, and Governor Andrew G. Curtin had called for 50,000 volunteers to join the state’s emergency militia to serve until the Rebels left the commonwealth.

Colonel Jacob G. Frick led the 27th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia into Wrightsville, having traveled by train from Harrisburg south to Columbia. Most of the men crossed the long bridge into Wrightsville and camped on the Joseph Detweiler farm (shown in the above photograph to the right center) for several days.

1930s aerial view of Wrightsville showing the June 28, 1863, defensive positions of the motley force of Union defenders

Some of the emergency soldiers later remarked about how they enjoyed their time along the river, with shad fishing a popular respite from the digging of trenches and rifle pits. They even attended an ox roast over in Columbia, a festive party thrown by wealthy industrialist William Case.

Trouble loomed on Sunday afternoon, June 28, when scouts and civilians rode in with reports that a major Confederate column of infantry, cavalry, and artillery was approaching from York. Many civilians left Wrightsville for presumed safety across the river while others helped the soldiers barricade the west-facing streets and the entrance to the massive wooden bridge.

The Rebels attacked in the early evening as skies threatened rain. Colonel Frick and other officers skillfully withdrew most of the militiamen. The Rebels pushed into town, but to their chagrin, the bridge had been set on fire after most of the Yankees had crossed into Columbia. At least two full regiments of Georgia infantry formed a bucket brigade and helped put out many small fires caused by flaming embers from the blazing bridge blowing back into town.

That night, a few regiments of Confederate infantry camped on the Detweiler farm, sleeping in tents abandoned by the retreating militia.

On Monday morning, with the bridge now out Rebel commander General John B. Gordon and his 2,000 veteran soldiers retired westward to York to rejoin the rest of their division.

The Detweiler farm had been devastated, with fences burned as fuel for campfires, livestock slaughtered for food, and fields trampled or dug up to form entrenchments. The farm buildings seen in the upper photograph remained intact until the early 1960s when they were town down to make room for a sub-development.

To learn more about this farm and the defense of the river crossing, see Scott Mingus’s book, Flames Beyond Gettysburg: The Confederate Expedition to the Susquehanna River, June 1863 (Savas Beatie, LLC).

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